How is supporting agile career development a key to building a continuous learning culture?

The good news: One of the most productive—and easiest—ways to attract talent is to create a career development program. Face it, all employees want to learn new skills, develop their aptitude, follow their passion, and have more control over the work they do. A career development program fits the bill.

– Barbara Seifert

Supporting employee career development is an increasingly critical factor in attracting and retaining talent. According to a 2017 report on employee retention from the Work Institute, career development was the number one reason why people decided to stay with an organization. A lack of career development opportunities was the number one reason people decided to leave. With estimated turnover costs ranging between $4,000 USD to 1.5 times an employee’s salary, this has major implications for the bottom line.

Career development is also becoming more and more critical as organizations are competing for younger talent. A recent Gallup poll shows that Millennials, who now make up over half of the workforce, rate the opportunity to learn and develop on the job as much more important than older generations do. It’s no wonder—navigating a career in today’s changing world looks a lot different than in the past. There is much more uncertainty, and none of us can rely as much on our past credentials and experiences to provide us with the skills we’ll need to succeed moving forward.

This brings us to our fourth principle of Leading Continuous Learning:

Principle #4

Continuous learning is driven by intrinsic motivation within the context of career development.

From paths to networks

The way organizations are supporting career development is in a state of transformation. No longer is career planning a one-and-done event, where individuals commit to a well-worn path and are given expert resources to guide them down it. Established paths are disappearing as quickly as new paths are emerging, which calls for a different strategy on both the individual and organizational levels.

One metaphor that has been used for this new type of journey is the network, and for good reason: we don’t navigate the complexities of the modern day as individuals, but rather as networks of individuals. It is through our relationships and more specifically, our conversations with others, that we are able to make sense of how things are shifting and where opportunities are emerging. While still important in the past, it is more the case now than ever that the strength of our networks largely determines our ability to succeed in our careers.

The Four Roles

In an organizational context, there are four key roles that make up any career development initiative: the individual, the manager, the mentors, and the organization. As Beverly Kaye and C. Smith write in Career Development: From Nicety to Necessity:

“When career development initiatives truly recognize this partnership, a vital link between individual and organizational goals and objectives can be realized. It can become the vehicle for implementing the talent management aspect of a company’s strategic plan by formulating a framework for optimum development. In this sense, it is not simply just another talent management activity but an integrating force that systematically ties existing processes together so that the individual and organizational growth can be supported.”

The 4 Key Roles of Career Development

When framed in this way, we can see that investing in career development is about far more than providing just another employee perk. It is also about building strategic alignment between the individual and the organization to drive engagement and performance. When this alignment is achieved, there is a greater sense of purpose for the individual, which represents intrinsic motivation.

As the psychologist Daniel Pink wrote in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “we leave lucrative jobs to take low-paying ones that provide a clearer sense of purpose.” Success in attracting and retaining talent, therefore, hinges on our ability to fill roles with individuals who find a clear sense of purpose there.

How the organization can support the individual

There is important work to be done on the individual level, and as learning leaders we can support this work in a number of ways. For example in a recent project, I worked with my client to create a career development toolkit that consisted of various resources to support both individuals and managers.

On the individual level, the first step was to provide some context around the why. Some of that I shared above: the changing nature of careers, the shift toward a more network-centric approach, and the role of regular conversations. This might take the form of a formal workshop, or it could be delivered as digital content, etc.

Second, we guided individuals through a series of activities that helped them to clarify important elements such as their most fundamental values and career drivers, their strengths and interests, and their personal visions for the future. In doing so, they were able to define and develop a personal brand that helped them communicate who they are and how they add value across their networks.

Third, we provided tools to support the key activity of developing networks. For example, the toolkit included a strategic networking template to help individuals identify others who they would like to establish relationships with, along with checklists and tips for guiding them through the process of reaching out, having networking conversations, following up, and nurturing relationships.

Fourth, we created a resource that provided a map of roles within the organization, along with information about each role including the key skills and experience required. This resource helped to guide individuals in goal-setting and strategic networking actions.

Finally, we created a number of resources to support managers in their critical role of leading coaching conversations with their team members.

Manager as coach

At the core of this approach to supporting career development is the relationship between individual contributors and the managers they report to directly. It is through ongoing 1-on-1 coaching conversations that the individual and the organization maintain the strategic alignment necessary to drive high levels of engagement, performance, and retainment.

To further illustrate, the toolkit and exercises we developed for the client project described above were designed specifically to help facilitate meaningful conversations with managers. We provided templates to capture outputs from exercises, for example, which in turn provided managers with key insights which helped to guide their interactions. This resulted in managers getting to know their team members on a much more personal level, allowing them to better support each to grow in the direction of their goals.

Conversations around career development are an ideal moment for managers to put on their coaching hats. Here the focus will be on creating space for reflection, asking thought-provoking questions, and active listening. There may be situations in which offering advice or relating personal experiences is appropriate, but ultimately managers should be challenged to meet their team members as peers rather than subordinates.

It is an excellent opportunity to build mutual trust by letting the individual reflect and come to their own conclusions. It is also, arguably, much more effective—when we come to our own conclusions and “own” our decisions, we are far more likely to find the motivation to follow through.

Managers also play a key role in connecting individuals within the larger organizational network. For example, they may make formal introductions or recommendations as they support their team to expand their networks. This activity can play an important role in breaking through silos and creating the cross-border relationships that support the organization as a whole to operate more effectively.

The role of mentorship

An important part of developing a network to facilitate career development is identifying and building relationships with mentors or potential mentors. As Michael Kroth and McKay Christensen write in their book, Career Development Basics, An enduring career development culture is tailored to the individual development needs of people in the organization, and it uses mentors to identify and meet them. Mentors are the arms and legs of a development culture.”

However, as many learning leaders know, establishing a successful mentoring program proves difficult. The reason is arguably pretty straightforward: a mentoring relationship cannot be forced. It requires a certain degree of trust and interpersonal resonance, and must emerge naturally.

In some but not all cases, a manager may become a mentor to an individual on their team. Other times, a manager may support the individual to identify and build relationships with mentors. In either case, this approach honors the critical role of mentorship while avoiding forcing these relationships in a way that rarely works.

The organization can support this by providing resources to help both mentors and mentees engage skillfully in the process. This may include workshops, job aids, or resources that equip individuals with the tools and mindsets that will help them establish a productive relationship.

Integrating career development and performance management

“When done right, great performance reviews can be the most effective and influential activity to advance career development.”

– Michael Kroth and McKay Christensen, Career Development Basics

As we looked at in our last article, an increasingly popular and emerging alternative to traditional performance management has much in common with the approach to career development shared here. This represents an opportunity to explore how these two critical pieces of an organization’s talent strategy may fit together to support one another while adding more value to both the employee and the organization.

Both approaches, for example, center around regular “check-ins” with managers. Both also emphasize a coaching-style conversation that is more supportive than directive in spirit and tone. Finally, both are focused on helping the individual set goals related to professional development  and creating a layer of accountability to drive follow-through.

Yet the case for integration goes beyond mere convenience. To fully understand the influences of on-the-job performance, we must take into consideration the context of the elements of one’s career: their core values and drivers, their goals, and their personal vision of the future. As Dr. Tabitha G. Murerwa writes in Career Development and Performance Appraisal:

“Ultimately, employees’ perceptions about their opportunities and their continuing development will affect current performance. Managers need challenged, motivated employees; such employees are unlikely to be found where managers resist involvement in career development or simply are not prepared to provide adequate assistance.”

When managers have the skills and the tools to meet their team members on a personal level, connecting with their core values, deepest motivations, and personal visions for their careers, they are in a much better position to have meaningful conversations around performance improvement. Rather than approaching the subject from a “here’s what you’re doing wrong and you better shape up or you’ll be out of a job,” leaders can learn to better unlock the potential of their teams by activating the intrinsic motivations that drive engagement and performance like a fear-based approach simply cannot.

For some, performance issues may be related to the fact that they have not done the work to clarify their personal values, strengths, visions, or goals for their career. As a result, they lack the direction necessary to pull them forward—managing such individuals requires constant pushing or dangling incentives that will only work so well. Integrating an effective career development program can help the individual create a compelling vision for their own future, in line with their personal values and strengths. It is the manner in which such a vision pulls one forward that represents the type of deep-seated intrinsic motivation that drives high performance.

“If employees know the direction of the company for the next two to five years, then different kinds of performance evaluations can occur. Instead of limiting the yearly or semi-annual performance review of things that have happened, orient the conversation to contributions employees are making to the company’s goals, especially if they are outside their main job responsibilities.”

Renée Gendron, Employee Career Development Is Good Business

Increasing engagement

A hypothesis based on my own experience: engagement is often the result of connecting the dots between what we are doing right now and a vision of what we want in the future. It is the why to the what. What tends to happen is that we lose sight of that connection, or perhaps we never make it, so the task at hand feels trivial and we disengage.

In this case, a career development initiative can help individuals to connect the dots and become more engaged in their current roles. They are supported to identify and articulate how their current role is—or, can be—a critical step in the direction of their ideal future role, where they have realized more of their own potential. When we become inspired by this potential, we become engaged in every step of the way toward fulfilling it.

Such an exercise may also reveal that a current role is not the right fit for a particular person. They may discover that it does not align with their values, strengths, or vision for the future of their career. Some leaders will default to seeing this as a potential risk and a reason to avoid the exercise. I would argue just the opposite. A high-performing team is not made up of people who are out of alignment with what matters most to them.

A common question that comes up in response to the approach to performance management that we advocate here, which focuses on empowering individuals to make more of their own decisions about development, is some version of, what do we do with low performers? The answer is that first, this process helps the individual, supported by their manager, to explore the root causes of their performance gaps. If a lack of alignment is revealed, it leads naturally to a conversation about making a shift in roles.

However, in many cases, this approach will help individuals discover how their current roles connect to their goals and cultivate the motivation needed to close performance gaps. They may come to see, for example, that they have an opportunity to develop certain skills that will serve them throughout their careers. It is through taking advantage of this opportunity to develop skills by improving their performance that new opportunities will open up to them.

Reducing turnover

You’re likely familiar with some version of the common saying people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers. While this may only be partially true, it highlights the important correlation between the quality of employee relationships with their managers and the turnover rate.

Career development represents a valuable opportunity to establish healthy and productive relationships throughout the organization, increasing both retention and effectiveness. When done well, it provides managers with the tools and skills necessary to understand their team members on a deeper level—their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, values, and goals for the future—and meet them where they are to better support them to move forward.

As we explored in this article , one of the core values (5 Cs) of a continuous learning culture is commitment. Commitment, however, is not something that is produced by simply espousing it as a value of the organization. It is something that is cultivated through an alignment of purpose.

LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report revealed that 93% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested more in their career development. When career programs align with developing positive, trustful relationships with managers, cultivating commitment, organizations are well equipped to retain top talent.


Increasingly, career development is a critical part of an organization’s strategy for attracting, developing, and retaining talent. Younger generations in particular value work experiences that will help them gain the skills and connections they need to move forward in their careers. No longer can they rely on their past learning experiences to provide them with the skills they’ll need to succeed moving forward.

Any career development initiative consists of four primary roles: the individual, the manager, the mentors, and the organization.

At its core, career development initiatives should focus on building relationships between managers and their team members. Managers play a key role in supporting individuals to align their current role with career goals to drive engagement and retention.

The organization can provide tools, resources, and formal learning experiences to support individuals to reflect on and capture their core values, strengths, and visions for the future, as well as support managers to build the skills necessary to lead regular coaching conversations with their team members.

The primary activity in modern career development is networking. Managers will help individuals create goals for growing and strengthening their networks, as well as the accountability to follow through. In some cases managers may also play an active role in helping individuals make new connections.

Career development strategies can integrate with performance management strategies, with managers leading regular coaching conversations as the primary activity. Organizations and talent development leaders can support this process by providing resources and tools, as well as trainings or workshops, to help both managers and individuals skillfully engage in this process.

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Tom Palmer